27 December 2016

In Memoriam: Carrie Fisher

I took myself to a matinee of Rogue One this afternoon. It leads up to the first scene of the original Star Wars movie, with a motion-capture recreation of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the final shot. A rebel hands her a data disc containing the stolen plans to the Death Star, and asks her what it is. "Hope," she answers. Cut to credits.

That was the memory of Carrie Fisher I was able to form before learning that while I was at the theater, news had spread that she had died. In fact, it was my therapist who told me about it at my appointment a few hours after the movie. If there's a more Carrie Fisher way to find out about something like this than from your therapist, I don't know what it would be.

I didn't grow up with Star Wars. I knew it existed, but there was no one in my life to see to it that I was exposed to it, so I didn't get around to watching the movies until I decided to rent them on VHS in 1992. So despite being from the generation I'm from, I can't share tales of watching Princess Leia save the galaxy shaping my childhood.

What I can share, though, is how reading Carrie Fisher interviews has shaped my ability to discuss my mental health.

Being a geek, I read various geek-centric magazines long before I finally gave in and explored Star Wars. There's no telling when I first read an interview with Fisher, or in which magazine, or what she even talked about in it. It doesn't make much difference, though, because as anyone who has ever read pretty much any interview she ever gave knows, invariably she would have touched on her mental health in one way or another.

I remember feeling confused and even a bit put off by the way she talked about having bipolar disorder. Her sense of humor made me question if she took it seriously, and if she didn't, why should anyone else? I didn't know anything about bipolar disorder aside from it being a volatile mental illness. It sounded scary. How could it be scary if she was making jokes about it?

Of course, this was all before I was ever given my own diagnoses and began to really learn about mental health. I didn't know the term "stigma", but I intuited that it existed. Things like bipolar disorder were unfit for polite society. They were embarrassing for the people who had it and they made everyone else uncomfortable. And then there was Carrie Fisher, who seemed incapable of being embarrassed.

I didn't understand it at the time, but what was actually taking place was I was reading an interview that some magazine decided to run because their readers loved Star Wars (even if it was ostensibly about some other film of hers, it was always really about Star Wars) and what Carrie Fisher was doing was showing us how to actually acknowledge and discuss mental health at a time when so few others seemed comfortable even trying. I was learning from her that it's okay to talk about it at all, for one thing, but I was also learning from her the ways that one can talk about it.

If I had to characterize Carrie Fisher in a single word, I'd go with "shameless". Ordinarily, we use that word to indicate someone who is brazen and defies manners. But here I mean that she rejected the very concept of shame when it came to her mental health and life experiences. I was already learning from David Letterman how to make oneself into a punch line, but this was something different. Every time she acknowledged that she had bipolar disorder, Carrie Fisher was effectively declaring, "I will not be shamed into silence about this."

Over the years, I came to better understand and appreciate the value of finding levity and making light of one's mental illness. I learned that, yes, you can make jokes and still take it seriously -- and expect others to also take it seriously, even as they chuckle along with your quips. It would be going too far to say that my sense of humor about my mental health came from Carrie Fisher; our styles of humor are fairly different in general. But it is 100% accurate to say that it was Carrie Fisher who gave me permission to have a sense of humor about my mental health, and for that I am eternally grateful. It's given me my most relied-upon tool to use against depression and anxiety. And as I'm sure you know, Dear Reader, having something that powerful to fall back on gives us something else, too:

Hope.

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